- Historic Sites
The behind-the-scenes struggle in 1948 between the President and the State Department
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
But in fact the lawyers in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser rejected this rationale, and their opinion was similarly confirmed by a group of UN Charter experts who met at the State Department on February 10, 1948. In a document prepared for Legal Adviser Ernest Gross, his assistant maintained that “… the authority of the Security Council subsisted regardless of the consideration that the Council’s authority … to maintain or restore peace and security might [legitimately] facilitate implementation of the General Assembly’s partition plan.” This caveat was ignored by the NEA group, and to my knowledge was never passed on to the White House. Worse yet, unknown to me and my colleagues on the President’s staff, there was still another section within the State Department that took exception to the policies of the NEA. It was the department’s Division of International Security Affairs. In February, 1948, this section stated that: The record of several of the Arab States in conspiring and executing a campaign of aggression against the Jewish community in Palestine is quite clear. … It must also be recognized that there is no basis at present for a finding that the acts of the Palestinian Jews constitute an “attempt to alter by force the settlement envisaged” by the General Assembly Resolution. … Jewish immigration is illegal only because it does not conform to the regulations of the mandatory power.
This division then recommended the imposition of an arms embargo against certain Arab states and the arming of a Jewish militia in Palestine. Going further, the Division of International Security Affairs similarly contended that there were indeed military, economic, and diplomatic measures that the United States could initiate through the UN body to facilitate the implementation of partition. Yet this dissenting view, like that of the Legal Adviser, was, to my knowledge, never presented to Secretary Marshall, let alone to the White House. Instead, Marshall was persuaded to argue the unworkability of partition in his meetings with the President, and to express this view as though it represented the full consensus of the State Department.
Intent, then, upon setting the policy guidelines for the statement to be issued by Ambassador Austin, Robert McClintock of the Office of United Nations Affairs drafted the ambassador’s speech, first as a preliminary statement of February 24, and then as the bombshell of March 19. McClintock was sure the final address “would knock the plan for partition on the head.” But in fact Harry Truman had a completely different conception of what the implications of the speech would be. He had emphasized to Marshall that Austin was authorized to call for a special session of the General Assembly and to propose a UN trusteeship only under three qualifications: 1) that the conciliatory machinery of the Security Council must be completely exhausted; 2) that the Council itself must then vote to propose an alternative to partition; and 3) that the Council similarly must vote to reject partition altogether. In imposing these qualifications, the President later wrote that little could be said for a Palestine solution that would destroy 100,000 Jewish lives so that another 100,000 Jewish immigrants could be saved.
The President’s qualifications did not appear in Austin’s famous statement of March 19. To this day I remember the bewilderment and consternation that were evoked by the trusteeship speech. The President instructed me to “find out how this could have happened.” As he said: “I assured Chaim Weizmann that we were for partition and would stick to it. He must think I am a plain liar.” He asked me to ascertain if Marshall had foreknowledge of this virtual abandonment of partition. When I investigated the next day I learned in fact that both Marshall and Undersecretary Robert Lovett had known in advance of the de facto reversal of the President’s policy. President Truman was simply confounded. He felt he could not repudiate his own Secretary of State without appearing to have lost control of United States foreign policy. Yet he was entirely unwilling to reverse his long-standing commitment to partition. “They have made me out a liar and a double-crosser,” he said tome. “We are sunk.”
On March 24, therefore, the President chaired an emergency gathering of the White House staff and several representatives from the State Department, including Marshall, Henderson, and Rusk. It was an afternoon to remember. When Truman sought to reconcile his support for partition with the concept of trusteeship, Henderson objected. He argued that partition should be considered dead and buried. The President rejected this course out of hand. Instead, he charged me with preparing a document that would seek to adapt the trusteeship proposal to partition. We worked on the draft through the night, and had it ready by our 9 A.M. staff meeting on the twenty-fifth. The statement reaffirmed American support for partition, and referred to trusteeship only as an interim measure intended simply to prevent large-scale violence in. Palestine upon the termination of the British mandate. I doubt that the statement satisfied either Jews or Arabs.